Christos Valtzoglou, owner of Greek restaurant Boukiés and 10-year veteran in the restaurant business, talks about his experience as a restaurateur. From failed Michelin star restaurant, Heartbreak, to well-established Pylos, Valtzoglou discusses how he plans to put Boukiés on the radar of the Big Apple.
Eating Your Way to a Better Economy
By: Teck Leong Lim
A year ago, restaurateur Christos Valtzoglou did the unthinkable. Two days before Michelin awarded his Swiss-German restaurant, Heartbreak, a star, he shut it down.
To put that into context – of the 24,000 restaurants in New York City, only 53 of them received one-star this year from the Michelin Guide, widely considered an international benchmark in gourmet dining. Seven restaurants received two-stars, and seven received three-stars, the highest honor.
“I got the Michelin star, but it was extremely expensive to maintain,” Mr. Valtzoglou explained. “I knew I would have to begin cutting quality in order to raise revenue, but I also knew that a place doesn’t get a Michelin star by cutting corners.”
One year later, the Greek-native, who already owns Pylos, an enormously successful East Village Greek restaurant, has drifted back to his roots. Standing proudly and flaunting neon blue letters on the corner of 29 East Second Street where Heartbreak used to be is his new restaurant, Boukiés, which opened in March this year.
Boukiés means “small bites” in Greek, Mr. Valtzoglou explained. The concept, unlike his first-born Pylos, which serves a full fare of Greek cuisine, involves sharing many small dishes. In fact there are only two entrée-sized dishes on the menu: the whole grilled fish and lamb chops.
“There are plenty of Spanish tapas restaurants in the city, but I saw that this style of Greek dishes was lacking,” he said. “It is the Greek way of eating, and I wanted to replicate it for the New York people.”
Having brought in cookbook author and all-around Greek food expert Diane Kochilas as consulting chef for the restaurant, Mr. Valtzoglou’s plan to disprove any doubts that may have arisen from his failed Heartbreak operation is a bold one that draws from experience.
“Yes Heartbreak did not go as planned, but remember that I own Pylos, which has been around for nine years now,” he said. “I know how to run a restaurant.”
Mr. Valtzoglou attributes a restaurant’s success to four cardinal principles – good quality, flavor, price, and ambience. He also believes that while much of the world has changed, certain ways of how things work remain the same.
“I’m old school, and so I believe that word of mouth is the best marketing for a restaurant,” he said. “And to get that word of mouth, the four basic things all need to be there.”
That is not to say Mr. Valtzoglou ignores social media and the web as a way to get the restaurant’s name out. He just leaves it to his younger counterparts to deal with. In fact just recently, his PR team put out a tweet that Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber were at the restaurant for dinner.
“Social media and the web does account for a significant amount of traffic and generates a lot of hype,” Kellie Jack, PR Jr. Account manager said. “We tweet whenever we get the chance, from special events and promotions to the occasional celebrity appearance.”
But even with celebrity backing, challenges new restaurants face are plenty abound. One only need think back to early last year, when Lady Gaga’s favorite diner, Vince & Eddie’s, closed after a run of less than five years despite her investment of $350,000 in the restaurant, according to documents obtained by Long Island Business News.
“Being relatively young and unknown is always the biggest challenge for any new restaurant,” Mr. Valtzoglou said. “Some factors you can control, like whether or not you are adequately capitalized to last until customers find you, but then some things are just totally out of your control.”
Some of these uncontrollable things that Mr. Valtzolgou alludes to are the weak economy, which is causing a shift in eating habits, and stiff competition.
“It is a new era, one where there are new ethnic cuisines popping up all over the place,” he said.
It also doesn’t help that people spend less time going to restaurants, and more time ordering food online or bringing home cooked food from supermarkets.
“The way the majority of people go out today has changed,” Mr. Valtzolgou said. “On the occasion that they do go out to eat, they are looking for more informal places to indulge.”
As a result, up to 80 percent of restaurants go out of business within five years, according to the 2004 documentary “Eat This New York.”
But if there is any place to open a restaurant, it is New York. Diners here go out to eat 12 percent more than the national average, according to a recent study by Bundle.com, an online platform that analyzes the spending patterns of millions of people to rate and review businesses. The study drew from billions of anonymous, aggregated credit card transactions. The data also revealed that diners here spend 49 percent more on eating out than the average U.S. household on a monthly basis.
That means for restaurants that do survive, the rewards can be alluring.
New York’s restaurants were projected to register $31.9 billion in sales for 2012, according to the National Restaurant Association. Divide that into the 41,221 eating and drinking places in New York, and a single restaurant on average generates around $775,000 in sales annually. Take a modest 10 percent to 20 percent bite into that, and an owner is looking to net in anywhere from $77,500 to $155,000 a year on average.
Restaurants are apparently good for the economy, too. In New York alone, restaurants provided 718,600 jobs in 2012, or eight percent of employment, according to the National Restaurant Association, which draws its data from the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Looking at the U.S. as a whole, restaurants account for 12.9 million jobs, or 10 percent of the entire workforce. The industry also generates $632 billion in sales, which accounts for about four percent of total U.S. GDP.
But no matter how tempting the figures may be, Mr. Valtzoglou, who has been in the restaurant business for almost a decade, understands that it all begins with the basics, which is the mastery of quality, flavor, price, and ambience.
“Without this, you’ll be hard-pressed to [run a successful restaurant],” he said. “There needs to be consistency on every level.”
Mr. Valtzoglou received his first taste of the restaurant business in 1970 when he first moved from Greece to New York as a teenager. Working various gigs at other peoples’ restaurants, it was a “natural evolution” that he eventually opened his own restaurant, he said.
40 odd years later, his experience shows.
A first-time customer to Boukiés will be greeted by a small attractive bar, and a spacious room that is neatly decorated with simple, but classy chairs and tables. A glance at the prices may scare away the frugal-hearted, but those who stick around understand that they are paying the price of quality.
For starters, the shrimp saganaki is flown in fresh from the Pacific Ocean. Then there is the grilled octopus that comes from the Canary Islands in Spain and not Greece, because as Mr. Valtzoglou explains, the quality and supply of the Canary octopuses far exceed those found in Greece.
“It’s definitely not easy and it doesn’t always help our profit figures,” Mr. Valtzoglou admitted. “But for me, quality always comes first, and I believe that one day volume will increase, and make up for the higher prices of the ingredients.”
To make sure the fresh ingredients are in good hands, consulting chef Diane Kochilas goes to Greece to get the recipes, then comes back to New York to implement them. The result is a menu that resembles the brain-child of Ms. Kochilas’s experiences in the different regions of Greece.
One of the dishes, the Rola Melitzanas (eggplant stuffed with spicy ground lamb filling), was featured in The Village Voice’s “100 Dishes to Eat Now.”
“It’s probably my favorite dish on the menu, I like strong flavors,” Mr. Valtzoglou said.
But when it comes to eating at others’ restaurants, Mr. Valtzoglou does not apply nearly the same strict standards as he does to his own. He enjoys everything the city has to offer.
“The beautiful thing about New York is that you can find almost every cuisine in the world here,” he said. “I’m not picky, I’ll eat anything from pizza to Chinese duck to German sausage.”